All three of our major political parties have, in recent years, shown their support for the involvement of the private sector in providing management and other services to the state sector – in health, in social services, and of course in education. Given the gross inefficiency and ineffectiveness of some local authorities, and given the faith that all three parties have shown in the workings of profits-oriented “markets”, this seems hardly surprising.
The superiority of “markets”, however, has been brought into question by the catastrophe of the banking and financial services sector. And now we see the entire medical profession protesting vociferously against the NHS Bill that’s currently going through Parliament.
Many headteachers and governing bodies have shown their unhappiness with the quality of support they’ve received from their local authorities, whilst at the same time wanting to remain within a State system that is coherent, professional and effective. The last thing that many senior professionals wish to see happening is turning schools into business units, with further emphasis on payment by results, and further emphasis on targets-chasing schooling at the expense of real aducation.
But how much debate is actually taking place within the teaching profession to try to reach some sort of professional agreement as to the future of education in England? (Clearly Scotland and Wales will continue to go their own way.) Why is it seemingly impossible for there to be a clear vision for the future – independent of what the politicians within the various parties think should happen? Is it because the teaching profession itself is split down the middle politically, and there’s been a complete absence of any philosophical or ideological discussion as to the true purposes of education?
The best of our State schools are very good indeed – so how come we don’t automatically see them as the model for the future? The education system in Finland is consistently shown to be the best in the world – so how come we don’t advocate running education in this country in the way it’s run in Finland?
The following piece by Seumas Milne in the Guardian is an interesting polemic that could be a useful starting point for professional debates. Consider it alongside our previous blog on Ofsted and Downhill school in Haringey.
Crony capitalism feeds the corporate plan for schools
Michael Gove’s drive to turn schools into academies opens the way for a privatised model that doesn’t deliver results
Schools are being bribed or bullied into becoming freestanding academies outside local democratic control, many sponsored or run by private companies or “social enterprises”. By breaking up local authority supervision and services, the ground is being laid for a dramatic expansion in private provision.
Until now, the education secretary has held back from giving for-profit companies the right to take over schools – the key, for market ideologues, to the transformation of English education. Last September Nick Clegg even drew a line in the sand: yes to “greater diversity”, he declared, but “no to running schools for profit”.
Gove has now given the go-ahead for a free school, IES Breckland, to be run for profit by Swedish firm IES under a 10-year contract. The “educational services industry” believes this loophole of outsourcing school management (rather than directly owning schools) should open the corporate floodgates.
Spectator editor Fraser Nelson called it a potentially “historic event”, while a senior Lib Dem bleated: “We didn’t foresee this.” Plenty of other people did, however. Sir David Bell, top civil servant at the education department until a couple of months ago, says he expects profit-making companies to be introduced to running state schools “very gently”.
A string of firms now wowing investors with a “substantial return” from the breakup of local authority control of schools see it happening pretty abruptly. Of course, New Labour gave private companies the run of everything from school inspections to careers advice, along with a few school management contracts.
What now opens the way for more sweeping privatisation is the mushrooming of academies. When the coalition came to power, there were a couple of hundred. Cash sweeteners and forced conversions have now driven that to 1,529, including 45% of all state secondary schools. Divorced from local service support, both profit-making and non-profit companies are already running publicly funded chains of academies.
The coalition says it’s all about freedom, empowerment and driving up standards. Parents who resist are branded by Gove as “Trots” and “enemies of promise”. Polling shows the public is opposed to private companies running schools for profit, though the distinction – when non-profit providers pay executives lavishly and often run schools abroad for profit – is in any case blurred.
If academies and private takeover really delivered the empowerment and results the government claims, however, they would doubtless be popular. But they don’t. Academies are less accountable, less transparent, less locally integrated and less open to parental involvement (governors are appointed, not elected) than local authority schools, while the sponsors or companies that run them can bend the curriculum to their whim.
And despite their best efforts at gaming exam results, the latest GCSE data shows academies performing worse in most cases than their community school counterparts. The same goes for the much-vaunted corporate-run Swedish and US schools the coalition is so keen to emulate.
A forthcoming IPPR survey of the international research underlines both that non-commercial schools outperform for-profit providers and that the competitive private education markets favoured by the Tories are not a route to better results.
So why are Gove and his friends so keen on them? Dogma is part of it. But privatisation has created interests which have driven policy in the teeth of the evidence for years. The revolving doors between public and private sectors have, for instance, propelled Zenna Atkins from chair of the schools’ inspectorate Ofsted to become chief executive of the private Wey Education, now setting up free schools, while Sir Bruce Liddington, former schools commissioner, is today director general of the private academy chain E-ACT.